Blog

REEL

I’ve put together a reel featuring some of my work from the US, Uganda, Iceland and India. If you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, I hope you’ll take a look.

If you like the reel, please share and check out a selection of my video stories here.

 

TEA PARTY ENVIRONMENTALIST

The Guardian have just published my short video on Debbie Dooley’s efforts to promote rooftop solar-power in Florida.

Dooley is a grass-roots activist who chanllenges the way conservatives think about the environment. Most environmentalists preach to the liberal choir. But when Dooley talks about sustainable-energy, libertarian free-marketeers, Christian conservatives and the Republican voter-base sit up and listen.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley at a Tallahassee luncheon to raise awareness about the influence of money on the political process. A still image from my  Guardian video. Tallahassee, Florida. USA ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Initially inspired by a Bill McKibben story I had read in the New Yorker that detailed efforts to advance solar in Vermont and Arizona, I became increasingly aware that solar-power expansion in the US was being thwarted by a determined and very wealthy cartel of fossil fuel interests. Dooley’s name quickly emerged as an unlikely figure among those pro-solar activists who have responded to this powerful lobby.

Dooley is co-founder of the Tea Party and sits on the board of directors of the national Tea Party Patriots. She argues that promoting solar energy is entirely consistent with conservatism. She says that solar introduces competition into the energy market, allows consumers to exercise their free market choice and challenges the monopoly of energy companies that are subsidised by the government. Dooley also insists that the threat of a terrorist attack makes it imperative that the country move to a more decentralised energy-grid.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Atlanta, Georgia USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley interviewed at home. A still image from my Guardian video. Atlanta, Georgia. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

Dooley has a successful record of forging unlikely partnerships to promote sustainable energy and this year shared a stage with Al Gore. In 2013, she joined forces with the Sierra Club to successfully defeat an effort by Georgia Power to impose large fees on customers with rooftop solar systems.

Dooley is now a leading figure in an alliance called Floridians for Solar Choice. This broad coalition of conservative free-marketeers like Conservatives for Energy Freedom and liberal-minded environmentalists including The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have come together to challenge the monopoly of Florida’s big private power utilities.

To sustain their unity while maximising their appeal to Florida’s notoriously divided electorate, Floridians for Solar Choice have made a strategic decision not to mention climate change (even as Florida’s largest city, Miami suffers from the effects of sea-level rise).

Stephen Smith heads the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and is working to promote rooftop solar in Florida as part of the Floridians for Solar Choice ballot intiative. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is one of Dooley’s liberal-partners fighting to promote solar energy in Florida. A still image from my video. Tallahasse, Florida. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

Floridians for Solar Choice are collecting signatures as part of a ballot initiative to amend the state’s constitution (for an excellent explainer, listen to Susan Glickman on WMNF’s Oct 19th show here.) This amendment will allow solar installation companies to offer financing for Florida residents interested in rooftop solar panels in much the same way a car-dealership might offer monthly payment-plans for those looking to purchase a new vehicle. The amendment will also allow those who have installed rooftop solar to sell the power that they generate directly to their neighbours. Current law permits only utility companies to sell electricity.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Georgia USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley en-route to Tallahasse to lend her voice to pro-solar events hosted by Floridians for Solar Choice. A still image from my video. Georgia. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

The Solar Choice initiative is on a mission to collect 683,000 signatures by February 2016. If the ballot initiative is successful, all Floridians will be able to vote on the measure in November 2016 and decide whether they want to see rooftop solar compete for energy production with the giant private utility monopolies.

Tom Pietrasik filming Debbie Dooley. Dooley is a member of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party. She is campaigning to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November1 2015 (Tom Pietrasik) Me filming Dooley outside Florida’s Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. 

The battle for solar in Florida offers a revealing insight into the blatant means by which democracy in America can be subverted. Florida’s big energy utilities along with the Koch Brothers have responded to the Solar Choice ballot by ploughing $1.9m into conservative front-groups. These groups have in-turn pushed an alternative ballot amendment called Floridians for Smart Solar. With such a positive name, it is difficult to imagine that this fossil-fuel backed amendment in fact amounts to nothing more than a ruse to shore up the existing utilities’ exclusive right to sell solar power. The Smart Solar amendment does not seek to promote solar power but to undermine it. This duplicitous strategy is intended to confuse the the electorate and threaten the success of Floridians for Solar Choice.

If efforts to promote solar in Florida stumble, it will be testament yet again to the ability of those with money to influence public policy and undermine efforts to reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuel.

The view across Tallahassee from Florida's Capitol building. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)A scene over Tallahasse, Florida in a still image taken from my video. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

PHOTOGRAPHING OXFAM’S ANNUAL REPORT

Farzana demonstrates hand-washing to adolescent girls and young children in 36 Bari Colony. Farzana, age 15, is multi-talented. She sews. She’s a keen dancer and is learning karate. She also volunteers for NGO forum, Oxfam’s partner and leads hygiene promotion sessions. Having grown up in the slum, Farzana was inspired to share her knowledge of disaster preparedness and personal hygiene with others. “When I was 16, I attended sessions like these myself. That’s my inspiration: They taught me a lot and told me to share what I know. I’m exploring my potential. Maybe others have strong potential too but because of lack of resources they don’t reach their potential.” Farzana is a resident of 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Oxfam are working with partners NGO Forum to support residents. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 17th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)My photograph of a hand-washing demonstration in Bangladesh, appears on the front cover of Oxfam’s latest annual report (see below).  Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

The cover of Oxfam’s latest Annual Report features a photograph I took last year in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. I have photographed and filmed for Oxfam on many occasions in south Asia and Africa. This work then appears in Oxfam campaigns and reports.

 (Tom Pietrasik)The same photograph above (cropped and reversed) as its appeared on the front of the latest Oxfam Annual Report. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

For this particular trip I spent two weeks in Bangladesh, documenting the lives of women whose lives are affected by climate change. Bangladesh is situated on a river delta and is already suffering the consequences of rising sea-levels. Frequent flooding makes farming in some areas unsustainable. In turn, rural populations migrate look for a better life in the cities.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children play morning games in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Urban infrastructure that was inadequate at the best of times becomes completely overwhelmed by the influx of new arrivals. Sewers overflow, congested roads pollute the air and the increased demand on power lines presents a fire-hazard.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Sunny Basfur, age 8, with family and neighbours outside his house in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

On this particular trip, I visited the northern district of Gaibandha where rural communities live a tenuous life farming alongside rivers that pose a constant flood-risk. I then travelled to the congested town of Mymensingh where these photographs were taken. Here I spent time with a minority Dalit (untouchable) community who must endure both physical hardship and the psychological burden imposed on them by caste-discrimination; though a majority-Muslim country, caste-hierarchy endures in Bangladeshi society.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Neighbours gather in the small network of lanes that run through Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

These sort of assignments can be a logistical challenge. The trip was commissioned by Luke Henrion of the Oxfam communications unit in Oxford, I was here in New York and Oxfam’s Bangladesh media team, led by Abdul Quayyum, were of course in Dhaka.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Alo Basfur (bottom right) cleans kitchen utensils with outside her home in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Taking on photography work almost always involves some compromise between the photographer and the commissioning client. Ahead of a trip I’m usually in the position of managing expectations or at least shaping a schedule so that it better accommodates my demands while making sure that the client gets what they need.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 19th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Jahanara Akhter signs up for a micro credit scheme with an agent. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I usually insist that I stay in accommodation close to the location in which I am photographing/filming. As well as avoiding wasted time on (often bumpy) roads, this means that I am much more likely to be able to work during the hours of dusk and dawn when the light is at its softest.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Jhumur Das and her daughter Shobnam Das (age 7) walk through their neighbourhood of Horijon Polli. Jhumur is employed as a cleaner. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I also insist that I am accompanied by a person who has a relationship of trust with the community I am photographing. What is nice about working for development agencies like Oxfam is that this connection is often easy to establish – either directly through local Oxfam field-staff or via a partner-organisation. Not only does this help open doors for me but it is more respectful to those in front of the camera.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children play morning games in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I also like to be able to spend as much time as possible with those I am filming or photographing. Again, this affords the subject proper respect and usually allows people to relax in front of the camera. Sufficient time also opens up the potential for defining – and often serendipitous – moments that can make a photograph special.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Chidlren from 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Confronting human climate change requires action on many fronts. Photography can play a small role by illustrating the lives of those already affected by climate change and helping to humanise an issue that otherwise might appear remote to those who are in a position to take action.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 17th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Rani Basfur, age 13 with a pot of water outside her house in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Unfortunately powerful institutions and governments have demonstrated little interest in the very-real threat climate change presents to the future of our planet. As well being incredibly short-sighted, this ultimately represents a snub to people like those I photographed in Bangladesh.

Jahanara with her two sons Jahidul Islam, age 9 and Jahirul Islam, age 5, outside their home in 36 Bari Colony. Jahanara works as a tailor to supplement her husband’s income as a construction worker. She volunteers for NGO forum as a health and hygiene promoter working with female adolescents in the slum. A passionate advocate of hand-washing to both adults and children, she’s seeing the result of her efforts: “I like doing the work that I do, the fact that people can stay healthy. I like the result of my work.” She’s also involved in promoting drain clearing. “Before, the latrines and drains were very dirty. Now, it’s a lot better but there’s so much more to do.” Jahanara Akhter, age 27, is a resident of 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Oxfam are working with partners NGO Forum to support residents of 36 Bari Colony in health promotion and disaster preparedness. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Jahanara Akhter with her two sons Jahidul Islam, age 9 and Jahirul Islam, age 5, outside their home in 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

As diplomats gear up for the COP21 summit in Paris next month, lets hope that the lives of ordinary people in places like Mymensingh take precedence over the short-term interests of corporations and their friends in government.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children on their way to school in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

BROOKLYN STORE FACES EVICTION

When Brooklyn-based advertising creatives Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan discovered that their local convenience store was facing closure, they began a campaign to help save it. My video – above – examining Cameron and Noonan’s satirical campaign in the context of gentrification in New York City was recently published by the Guardian here.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse’s storefront plastered with posters advertising satirical products at inflated prices.

Jesse’s store, run by Palestinian-American Jesse Itayim, has been an institution in Boerum Hill for over 26 years. Itayim has worked in the area for even longer. In 1986, long before Boerum Hill became the salubrious neighbourhood it is today, Itayim caught the headlines by foiling the attempted robbery of one of his neighbours.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse Itayim who has been running his store in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill for over 25 years.

The staff at Jesse’s store offer a valuable service to residents. They walk the elderly home with their produce, accept deliveries on behalf of neighbours and remain open during the worst of New York’s weather. But like many other small businesses, Jesse’s has no negotiating power when it comes to agreeing a reasonable rent  with the landlady. Legislation to protect commercial tenants is now slowly working its way through the New York City council. But there will be strong resistance from the real-estate and building lobbies should any of its provisions look likely to pass.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Doug Cameron talking to advertising partner Tommy Noonan at their Manhattan office.

By launching a satirical “rent-hike sale” with posters advertising artisanal products in-line with the rent-increase, Cameron and Noonan have used humour to help expose the vulnerability of small business tenants like Itayim. And a complimentary social media campaign (#BillDeBodega) broadens the campaign-reach, building awareness of tenants rights among those who might be unaware just how vulnerable New York’s small businesses are.

Cameron and Noonan have now launched the second phase of their campaign to save Jesse’s store. You can read details here. 

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse’s storefront plastered with posters advertising satirical products at inflated prices.

CLIMATE-CHANGE STORIES FOR THE GUARDIAN

I have been managing a climate-change video project for the Guardian and recently travelled with my cameras to New Mexico and Iceland.  Here I found scientists exposing the catastrophic effect climate-change will wreak on the natural world.

 (Tom Pietrasik)A scene I shot from a drone in my video on Iceland’s puffins. Heimaey, Iceland.  ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

On the Westman Islands of Iceland, I met Erpur Hansen who leads a team trying to understand the reason puffins why have experienced what he calls, “complete reproductive failure.”

 (Tom Pietrasik)Erpur Snær Hansen talks about his research on puffins in Iceland. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Puffins abstain from breeding in lean years when the supply of fish is low, so avoiding the necessary-burden of raising chicks. For these long-lived birds, skipping a single breeding season has little impact on population levels. But when puffins must skip multiple, consecutive breeding seasons, the very survival of the population is threatened. And, as I discovered, this is exactly what is happening on the Westman Islands today.

 (Tom Pietrasik)An image from my video on puffins in Iceland. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Hansen has tracked the puffins’ demise since 2007. It appears that the warming of sub-Arctic seas has caused a collapse in the puffin’s main prey, the sand eel. It has not been established if this current warming-phenomenon is the result of human-induced climate-change or because of a 70-year oscillation in surface sea-temperature called AMO (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation), or both. Whatever the explanation, global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions will only accelerate the puffin’s demise. 

In Los Alamos, New Mexico, I filmed Nate McDowell who spends most of his time “torturing” trees to identify the threshold of their mortality. By denying trees water and exposing them to increased temperatures, McDowell mimics projected climate conditions in northern New Mexico.

 (Tom Pietrasik)Scientist Nate McDowell outside his home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

McDowell has discovered that trees, when exposed to dryer, hotter weather, close tiny surface pores on their leaves called stomata. This strategy reduces dehydration but significantly, it also prevents the tree from absorbing CO2, required for photosynthesis. This natural response is sustainable for short periods but, during long hot droughts, the strategy is doomed. Unable to photosynthesise, trees effectively starve to death. 

  (Tom Pietrasik)Lunch with the McDowell family at their home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Both Hansen and McDowell concluded their interviews with depressing prognoses for the planet. Both are frustrated by the failure of governments to challenge powerful business interests and to properly confront the very grave threat global warming presents to the ecosystems in which they work.

 (Tom Pietrasik)A landscape scarred by forest fire – the result of poor land management and global warming – in the Jemez Mountain range of New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015